For those who do not know, Phyllis Zagano is the foremost proponent of having women deacons in the Catholic Church. The National Catholic Reporter bills her thus:
Phyllis Zagano is an internationally acclaimed Catholic scholar and lecturer on contemporary spirituality and women’s issues in the church. Her award-winning books include Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (First Place, 2001 Catholic Press Association and 2002 College Theology Society), Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority (Second Place, 2012 Catholic Press Association) and Women Deacons? Essays with Answers (First Place, 2017 Catholic Press Association).
Her writing is widely translated — her best-selling On Prayer: A Letter for My Godchild is in Indonesian, Spanish and Italian as well as English — and she edited the Liturgical Press’ “Spirituality in History” series.
She is a member of the Papal Commission for the study of the diaconate of women. Winner of two Fulbright awards, her biographical listings include Marquis Who’s Who. Her professional papers are held by the Women in Leadership Archives, Loyola University, Chicago. She holds a research appointment at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.
The question of women’s ordination to the diaconate is open. There are certainly arguments to be made for the ordination of women to the diaconate, and I discuss the pros and cons in a blog post here.
I’m happy to be on the record that if the Catholic Church approves the re-establishment of the ancient order of deaconess that would be fine by me. The decision itself is above my pay grade.
However, one of the big questions is, “Will the ordination of women as deacons lead to calls for the ordination of women as priests?” Phyllis Zagano contends that the two issues are completely separate, and the practicalities of ordaining women as deacons do not impinge on the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood.
But she does seem somewhat cagey about this. She is, let’s face it, a leading academic on the subject of women in the diaconate, and has done exhaustive study. She is on the Vatican commission to study the question but at this stage she insists that she is not pushing for women priests.
This article in the Catholic Herald takes up the discussion. In a talk at Yale in 2013 Zagano was quizzed about women priests and she agrees that it is difficult to see how women could be ordained as deacons but not move on to be ordained as priests.
Asked about whether the hierarchy fear women deacons would lead to women priests, Zagano said: “Cardinal O’Connor told me in the 1990s that the conversations in Rome were specifically on this point. They couldn’t figure out how you could ordain a woman as a deacon and not ordain her as a priest. And I said, ‘OK, I’m done, you’re right – you can ordain her both as a deacon and a priest.’” The Yale audience applauded at this point.
Zagano said that Cardinal John O’Connor, then Archbishop of New York, had told her in the 1990s: “Phyllis, if you have proved that women can be ordained as deacons, you have proved that women can be ordained as priests.” Zagano replied: “Your Eminence, I’m not allowed to talk about that. Why are you bringing it up?”
Zagano, who teaches at Hofstra University in New York, told the Catholic Herald via email: “None of my work supports or advocates for women priests.” When asked whether she would like to see the Church ordain women as priests at some point in the future, Zagano said that she had no further comment.
The world expert in women’s ordination to the diaconate has this conversation with a cardinal and then insists that there is no connection with women priests? Does that make sense to you? It seems to me that Cardinal O’Connor was right, and everyone should admit it: if women can be ordained as deacons why should they not be ordained as priests? Certainly all the practical arguments for women deacons applies to women priests. To help with priest shortage etc. etc.
Since Zagano tiptoes around the issue, perhaps it is instructive to see what the advocates of women’s ordination to the priesthood feel about Catholic women deacons. The Wijngaards institute is run by former Catholic priest John Wijngaard. He has been an advocate of women priests for a long time. This page from the website of his institute states his support for women priests unequivocally, and his group’s present support for women in the diaconate can only be perceived as part of the same agenda.
A quick browse through Women’s Ordination Conference, Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, and Roman Catholic Women Priests will reveal that, for the most part, all these dissident groups see women’s ordination to the diaconate as a first step towards women priests. The one thing we can applaud about these three groups is that they are very clear about their objectives. They are pushing for women’s ordination to the priesthood and they don’t mind saying so.
Zagano, on the other hand, has distanced herself from the proponents of women’s ordination to the priesthood, but does she truly think there is no link between the two? In the Herald article she is reported as saying “the church isn’t ready for women priests.” But that is hardly the same thing as saying such a thing is impossible–as four popes have said, and when she was asked directly she dodged and ducked.
Perhaps in this age of ecumenical dialogue Phyllis Zagano should spend more time studying the experience of the Anglicans and listen to their story. They will recount very clearly how, in the early days of the campaign to ordain women to the priesthood all the talk was, “The women need to be ordained as deacons. Of course there is no talk of being ordained to the priesthood! How silly! We would never dream of such a thing.”
Meanwhile in Church of England seminaries the professors were quietly telling the women who were training as deaconesses that they should do the same training as the men because they would soon be ordained as priests.”
Of course the cat and mouse game of the progressives continued. When the argument for women priests was being made they said, “This has nothing to do with theology. This is a question of justice.” Meanwhile the liturgists and theologians were writing feminist liturgies and feminist theologies that changed the name of the Trinity to “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” and eyeing up the miters, croziers and episcopal palaces.
It may be that Phyllis Zagano and other proponents of women deacons really and truly believe there is no link with women in the priesthood, and that they are truly uninformed about the progress of the same debates in the mainstream Protestant churches.
If so, then either they have their heads in the sand or they should do a bit more research.